Meet The Women Reinventing The Retail Experience In Brooklyn
By Alexis DeSalva
Meet the women reinventing the retail experience in Brooklyn The last ten months have been difficult for everyone, but the retail industry has faced particular challenges. While a few big players have benefitted from consumers mostly seeking essentials, the pandemic became the nail in the coffin for others. In many ways, the event was a “survival of the fittest” for retail. When you think of which businesses would not only survive, but emerge as differentiators, you might not immediately think of small businesses. But you should. At least, you should consider one particular stretch on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. There a crop of mostly women-run businesses have joined forces to not simply get by, but to get people shopping and to bring people back to the community. As shop owner Eva Dayton puts it, “we’ve been preparing for this.”
Of course, no one could fully anticipate the changes the pandemic would bring, but this particular group of business owners proved they are as nimble and adaptable as any of the big box retailers. In fact, they demonstrate a type of savvy one doesn’t always expect from smaller operations. While some, such as Dayton, have been a part of the local business scene for more than twenty years, living through other challenging times such as 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, others, such as jewelry maker Page Sargisson, are new to the neighborhood.
This group, which also includes Mary Jo Pile of Collier West, Yvonne Chu of Kimera, Gale King of Jao, and Iris Clarke of Iris Lingerie, joined forces even before the pandemic, thanks to what some may attribute to a woman’s intuition. Dayton, the owner of Consignment Brooklyn, a secondhand store specializing in high-end fashion, had the idea to get her fellow business owners together on a text chain even before COVID-19 disrupted the retail world. As Dayton explains it, the idea grew from recognizing that things were changing even pre-pandemic, and the notion to join forces stemmed from a desire to collaborate; to work together to create a unique experience for the community so they wouldn’t have to look elsewhere. “Think about where business is headed and what people are into and what’s driving shoppers. What makes it cool and interesting to come to my store or this neighborhood? The way people are shopping now is so different than the way people were shopping. People want to come to my store, try on things, and hang out,” says Dayton. In essence, they want an experience.
As a consumer, that type of personal, hands on interaction is a welcome departure from the isolated routine of online shopping that so many of us have become accustomed to. We’ve become trained to make shopping more tactical - seeking low prices, free shipping, fast delivery - and less personal. But in 2020, our priorities suddenly changed. Yes, convenience is still important, but so is humanity; knowing who you’re buying from and being able to have a real conversation with them is something we didn’t know we needed. Now, convenience isn’t the only important factor; connection is too.
This type of warmth and personality is what draws shoppers to Atlantic Ave and to these specific stores. After recently relocating to Brooklyn from Chicago, I visited this highly-recommended block, stopping first into Consignment Brooklyn. There I met Eva Dayton, and we struck up a long conversation, chatting about our mutual love of fashion and business, while I browsed the racks of well-curated, gorgeous clothes. I was on my way to a local salon, but ended up making many other unplanned stops thanks to Dayton’s recommendations. She suggested heading across the street to visit another boutique, M.Patmos, featuring a beautiful collection of modern designs, and on the way I was pulled into the nearby Collier West home furnishings store, thanks to its window display filled with funky artwork. On my way back to the A train, I popped into the tiny but charming (and delicious) Little Sweet Cafe for a latte where I, again, found myself chatting with a friendly barista.
This afternoon trip pleasantly surprised me; it was the type of shopping experience that’s become the exception instead of the standard. Not only are the stores thoughtfully and well curated, but the staff feel more like friends or neighbors. The variety of stores and the location makes this neighborhood a convenient place to shop, but it offers so much more than that. Shopping here feels different; it feels charming and unique. It evokes a sense of nostalgia of a time when shopping small was the norm. It’s what keeps me - and others - coming back, and this area has quickly become my favorite place to shop in New York.
While most retailers are in a constant race to outdo each other, luring consumers with an endless stream of discounts and promotions, the mostly female-run businesses on Atlantic Ave are doing the opposite. They’re not competing, they’re collaborating. And they’re doing so in hopes of bringing people to their block to experience something they can’t get elsewhere. As Dayton puts it, these are community-driven businesses with a customer-oriented environment.
In fact, some of these small businesses have been doing things long before the big retailers started. Take Dayton’s store, Consignment Brooklyn, which brought the concept of shopping secondhand and buying sustainably to the neighborhood over a decade ago. Yet, they’re often overlooked, with more attention paid to bigger players, such as The RealReal in this case.
In a time when many businesses are simply trying to survive, the stores in this Brooklyn neighborhood are aiming to reinvent the shopping experience. It hasn’t been easy; after all, they’re facing the same challenges other small businesses face: small teams, limited capabilities, and limited resources. But that’s one of the reasons they’ve come to rely on each other, to build off each other’s resources and knowledge. When Dayton had the idea to pilot a Boerum Hill Bingo promotion for the holiday season, others quickly jumped on board. The concept incentivizes shoppers to visit multiple local businesses for their holiday shopping needs, offering a 10% discount on every purchase at participating stores after an initial $50 purchase. The goal is to encourage consumers to shop small and support the community, but to also offer shoppers something fun. This doesn’t mean convenience is overlooked; in fact, many of these retailers offer seamless shopping options including curbside pickup, Instagram Checkout and even local hand deliveries. The difference is the emphasis is on community and convenience; not one over the other.
What the women of Atlantic Avenue want goes beyond commerce. In fact, they want something that’s difficult for their larger competitors to achieve, something that’s a benefit of being a smaller operation. These women want to get to know you, to talk to you, to greet you on a first name basis, and be there to help you find what you need again in the future. In return for your support, they want to make your shopping experience joyful and fun, because we all need that, especially now.